“Tomorrow I will start my diet,” I reflected, while munching a doughnut.
If this has ever happened to you, you have experienced first-hand what this article is about: what happens when we act in a way that does not align with who we believe we are.
That slight feeling of discomfort we perceive when noticing this mismatch is called cognitive dissonance.
Cognitive dissonance is powerful because we are highly driven to eliminate it. The way we do that can be transformative or destructive. Interestingly, we often do so without being aware of it.
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This Article Contains:
- Cognitive Dissonance: Festinger’s Theory
- A Real-Life Example
- 4 Ways to Address Cognitive Dissonance
- A Look at Research Findings
- Assessing Cognitive Dissonance: 2 Questionnaires
- Dealing With Dissonance in Therapy: 4 Tips
- A Note on Cognitive Dissonance in Relationships
- 2 Books on the Topic
- 4 Interesting Podcast Episodes on the Subject
- PositivePsychology.com’s Relevant Resources
- A Take-Home Message
Cognitive Dissonance: Festinger’s Theory
A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.
Leon Festinger, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance
Over 60 years ago, Leon Festinger (1957) postulated one of the most well-known theories of psychology: cognitive dissonance theory.
The theory is based on the idea that two cognitions can be relevant or irrelevant to each other (Festinger, 1957). Such cognitions can be about behaviors, perceptions, attitudes, emotions, and beliefs. Often, one of the cognitions in question is about our behavior. If the cognitions are relevant, they can be in agreement (consistent) or disagreement (inconsistent) with one another (Festinger, 1957).
Discrepancy between an attitude and a behavior – eating a doughnut while thinking of reducing calorie intake – leads to psychological discomfort called cognitive dissonance (Harmon-Jones, 2019).
Cognitive dissonance leads to the motivation to reduce the dissonance (Festinger, 1957). The stronger the discrepancy between thoughts, the greater the motivation to reduce it (Festinger, 1957).
There are four strategies used to do reduce the discomfort of cognitive dissonance:
- We change our behavior so that it is consistent with the other thought.
- We change one of the dissonant thoughts in order to restore consistency.
- We add other (consonant) thoughts that justify or reduce the importance of one thought and therefore diminish the inconsistency.
- We trivialize the inconsistency altogether, making it less important and less relevant.
There are two other factors that influence the magnitude of cognitive dissonance: whether you had some choice over the inconsistency and whether you expect the inconsistency to have negative consequences in the future. The more choice you had over the inconsistency (Linder, Cooper, & Jones, 1967) and the worse the consequences (Cooper & Worchel, 1970), the stronger the dissonance will be.
Dissonance can also be experienced vicariously through people of a social group that we identify with. When they act inconsistently with their attitude, we feel the same discomfort as if we had acted inconsistently with our attitude ourselves (Cooper, 2016).
The concept of cognitive dissonance is nicely explained in this YouTube video by social psychologist Andy Luttrell.
A Real-Life Example
Cognitive dissonance occurs frequently and to all of us (Harmon-Jones, 2019).
Imagine confronting a sunbather with the information that excessive sun exposure is the leading cause of skin cancer. The two thoughts – ‘sunbathing can cause cancer’ and ‘I am sunbathing’ – will cause the discomfort of cognitive dissonance. Consequently, they will be motivated to reduce it.
They will do this in one of four ways:
- They change their behavior. Upon acquiring the additional information, they might stop sunbathing.
- They change one thought. They might decide to deny the evidence showing a link between sun exposure and skin cancer.
- They add other (consonant) thoughts. They might think that sun exposure is necessary for the body to produce vitamin D, which is important for bone health, among other benefits. Therefore, they may decide that a little sunbathing is good for their health.
- They trivialize the inconsistency. They might think that facts like that have been disproven plenty of times before and disregard the information altogether.
4 Ways to Address Cognitive Dissonance
Cognitive dissonance is not necessarily a bad thing.
In fact, it is a psychological mechanism that helps us perceive our world (and our place in it) consistently. It is a mechanism that alerts us when we are not acting in line with our beliefs, attitudes, or plans.
In that sense, the experience of cognitive dissonance is an opportunity to learn and grow, as long as we deal with it constructively and respond in a way that we choose and is beneficial.
Often, we deal with cognitive inconsistencies without being aware of them. The first step is to notice inconsistencies between our thoughts. We can raise our awareness through mindfulness practice. This includes refraining from judgment and instead being accepting of our observations.
2. Challenge current beliefs
The next step is to identify the cause of inconsistencies in our thoughts. Understanding your beliefs and values behind the inconsistencies is an opportunity to develop deeper self-knowledge.
Sometimes, it’s helpful to challenge our current beliefs. This can be a difficult and uncomfortable process and involves getting additional information.
3. Consider the importance of dissonant thoughts
Sometimes the dissonant information appears to be important at first sight but can be diminished upon deeper reflection.
A good example is the prospect of embarrassing ourselves in front of others, such as by forgetting our words during a speech. However, after further thought, we may decide that it does not matter what others think of us and can thus reduce the dissonance.
4. Justifying behavior
We may perceive dissonance when we engage in a new behavior (e.g., when we decline an invitation to an event we usually attend in order to protect our leisure time). While this can feel uncomfortable at first, it’s helpful to reflect on the reasons behind our behavior.
A Look at Research Findings
Festinger and Carlsmith (1959) conducted one of the first studies examining cognitive dissonance.
In a three-group experimental design, they asked participants to complete a boring and monotonous task. Subsequently, intervention group participants were offered either $1 or $20 (under random selection) to engage in so-called counter-attitudinal behavior: telling the next participant that the task was enjoyable.
The researchers hypothesized that the intervention group participants would experience cognitive dissonance as a result of two conflicting thoughts: 1) the task is boring and 2) I am telling someone the task is fun.
They further presupposed that participants would be driven to reduce the dissonance by justifying their behavior. Since participants in the $20 condition had a more substantial justification (higher pay) already, they were further assumed to perceive less dissonance than those in the $1 condition.
Cognitive dissonance was measured indirectly by asking participants about changes in their opinion about how enjoyable the task was following the experiment.
As hypothesized, those in the $1 condition reported a significantly greater change of their opinion about the task than the other two groups. You can watch the following video clip about the study.
Assessing Cognitive Dissonance: 2 Questionnaires
One of the criticisms about cognitive dissonance is that we cannot measure it directly (Harmon-Jones, 2019). Thus far, research studies have typically assessed cognitive dissonance using various indirect measures including:
- Changes in attitude toward a specific, context-dependent topic, such as enjoyment of the mundane task in the experiment described above (Festinger & Carlsmith, 1959)
- Information seeking following a change in usual behavior (Engel, 1963)
- Differences in task performance as a result of the physical arousal associated with dissonance (Elliot & Devine, 1994)
- Galvanic skin responses (Elkin & Leippe, 1986)
More recently, psychometric measurement scales were developed. Since cognitive dissonance often naturally occurs after a decision such as a purchase, this is what questionnaires have focused on.
Sweeney, Hausknecht, and Soutar (2000) developed a 22-item scale measuring cognitive dissonance immediately following a purchase. It examines three dimensions of cognitive dissonance:
- Emotional consequences of the purchase (‘After I bought this product, I felt annoyed’)
- Judgment regarding the wisdom of the purchase (‘I wonder if I made the right choice’)
- Concern over the deal (‘After I bought this product, I wondered if they had fooled me’)
The questionnaire can be downloaded free from ResearchGate.
Koller and Salzberger (2007) developed an eight-item consumer behavior scale. Their questionnaire includes items regarding the decision-making process before and after the purchase. The full text can be requested from the authors free of charge via the ResearchGate website.
Dealing With Dissonance in Therapy: 4 Tips
According to psychology professor Joel Cooper (2007), “Most therapies seek to change people’s maladaptive reactions to their social world to more adaptive responses.”
Therapists aim to help their patients by understanding and changing their attitudes, emotions, or behaviors. Dissonance can be hard to address constructively. The following tips consider its use or presence in therapy.
1. Induce effort
Cognitive dissonance theory itself suggests that if patients are investing time, money, and emotional effort in the therapy, they will be likely to work hard to reach their therapeutic goals in order to justify their efforts.
2. Provide choice
If patients are provided with the opportunity to co-design aspects of their therapy, they may be more likely to act in line with their choices by reaching their therapeutic goals.
3. Provide a safe space and consider the use of relaxation techniques
Patients are likely to feel uncomfortable when dissonant thoughts are discussed, which can impede their ability to think constructively.
4. Discussing discrepant behavior
Therapy can help patients by reflecting on and taking control of their thoughts. Sometimes when patients engage in a new, more constructive behavior, they can perceive dissonance simply because it is contrary to the way they used to act. Providing the space and time to understand their new behavior and justifying it can help to reduce the dissonance.
A Note on Cognitive Dissonance in Relationships
Cognitive dissonance and the way we cope with it regularly affect our relationships, too, both positively and negatively.
Relationships are typically built on shared attitudes, beliefs, and values. When our friends or partners act contrary to our beliefs and values, we perceive dissonance.
Coping mechanisms can include justifying their behavior (and our relationship with them), trivializing their behavior or the importance of it, attempting to change their behavior, or changing our own behavior.
This offers opportunities to discuss the discrepancies, deepen the relationship, and re-align values. Conversely, we may justify or trivialize negative behavior or even end the relationship.
In romantic relationships, important values represent hotspots for cognitive dissonance and typically center on big decisions, such as the wish to have children, lifestyle choices (e.g., buying a house vs. traveling the world), and issues related to family and friends.
The expectation of shared beliefs, values, and attitudes from family members can additionally influence romantic relationships. If these don’t align, we might consider justifying our relationship or breaking up. An extreme example of the negative consequences of cognitive dissonance is when we justify our partner’s harmful behavior toward us and get stuck in a toxic relationship.
2 Books on the Topic
1. A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance – Leon Festinger
The original book by Leon Festinger is a staple on every (social) psychologist’s bookshelf.
It provides an introduction to the theory and covers the topics of cognitive dissonance following decisions, the effects of forced compliance, the impacts of voluntary and involuntary exposure to information, and the role of social support.
Find the book on Amazon.
2. Cognitive Dissonance: 50 Years of a Classic Theory – Joel Cooper
Psychologist Joel Cooper recently published a comprehensive update of cognitive dissonance theory after more than 50 years of research.
This book includes examples of cognitive dissonance in today’s world.
Find the book on Amazon.
4 Interesting Podcast Episodes on the Subject
The Psych Files is hosted by psychologist Dr. Michael A. Britt and has several episodes on cognitive dissonance:
- Episode 8: Cognitive Dissonance Theory: Why Contradictions Bother Us So Much
- Episode 10: Cognitive Dissonance Strikes Again! What Your Search on Amazon Says About You
- Episode 63: Cognitive Dissonance, the Monty Hall Problem and a Possible Resolution?
This episode of the podcast Behavioral Grooves features an interview with Dr. Kathleen Vohs on cognitive dissonance theory. Dr. Vohs discusses the topic as it relates to supporters of Former President Donald Trump justifying one of his controversial tweets in 2019.
PositivePsychology.com’s Relevant Resources
The following resources will make great supplemental support on the topic:
- 20 Most Popular Theories of Motivation in Psychology provides an introductory overview of motivation theories.
- Identifying and Challenging Core Beliefs: 12 Helpful Worksheets will help you identify core beliefs that play a role in your experience of cognitive dissonance.
- You can use the Choice Point tool to help your clients reflect deeply about a tough decision and maximize their choice in alignment with their values.
- Our Mindfulness Masterclass© provides a comprehensive opportunity to understand and cultivate mindfulness practice.
- The Meaning and Valued Living Masterclass© provides you with the means to help your clients understand their core values.
A Take-Home Message
Cognitive dissonance is a well-researched psychological phenomenon. It occurs in all of us frequently, not just when planning to diet and justifying a doughnut with a delayed diet start.
Negative consequences of cognitive dissonance reduction include procrastination or acting seemingly contrary to our values and beliefs. However, it can be beneficial to remind ourselves that it exists as a psychological safety mechanism to help us perceive the world consistently and to protect the perception we have about ourselves.
Understanding our mechanisms with which we reduce dissonance and recognizing when it occurs are key to making informed and constructive decisions. Self-awareness and mindfulness practice empower us to notice inconsistencies in our thinking and find the space between dissonance triggers and our reaction so we can choose a response we are truly happy with.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download these Positive Psychology Exercises for free.
If you wish for more exercises, our Positive Psychology Toolkit© contains over 350 science-based positive psychology exercises, interventions, questionnaires, and assessments for practitioners to use in their therapy, coaching, or workplace.
- Cooper, J. (2007). Cognitive dissonance: 50 Years of a classic theory. SAGE Publications.
- Cooper, J. (2016). Vicarious cognitive dissonance: Changing attitudes by experiencing another’s pain. In J. P. Forgas, J. Cooper, & W. D. Crano (Eds.), The psychology of attitudes and attitude change. Psychology Press.
- Cooper, J., & Worchel, S. (1970). Role of undesired consequences in arousing cognitive dissonance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 16(2), 199–206.
- Elkin, R. A., & Leippe, M. R. (1986). Physiological arousal, dissonance, and attitude change: Evidence for a dissonance-arousal link and a “don’t remind me” effect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51(1), 55–65.
- Elliot, A. J., & Devine, P. G. (1994). On the motivational nature of cognitive dissonance: Dissonance as psychological discomfort. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67(3), 382–394.
- Engel, J. F. (1963). Are automobile purchasers dissonant consumers? Journal of Marketing, 27(2), 55–58.
- Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford University Press.
- Festinger, L., & Carlsmith, J. M. (1959). Cognitive consequences of forced compliance. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 58(2), 203–210.
- Harmon-Jones, E. (Ed.) (2019). Cognitive dissonance: Reexamining a pivotal theory in psychology (2nd ed.). American Psychological Association.
- Koller, M., & Salzberger, T. (2007). Cognitive dissonance as a relevant construct throughout the decision-making and consumption process – An empirical investigation related to a package tour. Journal of Customer Behaviour, 6(3), 217–227.
- Linder, D. E., Cooper, J., & Jones, E. E. (1967). Decision freedom as a determinant of the role of incentive magnitude in attitude change. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 6(3), 245–254.
- Sweeney, J. C., Hausknecht, D., & Soutar, G. N. (2000). Cognitive dissonance after purchase: A multidimensional scale. Psychology & Marketing, 17(5), 369–385.